Various wooden spoons filled with different types of sweeteners. Various wooden spoons filled with different types of sweeteners. Honey, coconut sugar, maple syrup, stevia and less-refined sugars can all be great substitutes for white sugar in recipes. (Photo: Sasimoto / Shutterstock)

Put away the artificial sweeteners – they're making you fat

New research shows that chemical sweeteners may do more harm than good, but there are other tasty alternatives to sugar.

Artificial sweeteners have long been popular sugar substitutes for people looking to lose weight. Users get a dose of sweetness in their coffee, tea or soda, but none of the calories that typically accompany the tempting flavor, with the goal of dropping pounds and avoiding metabolic diseases, like diabetes. But new research indicates that some sugar-free sweeteners might be doing just the opposite. 

Seeing that so many people who consume diet drinks and supplements fail to lose weight – with some even gaining weight and developing diabetes – scientists at Israel's Weizmann Institute of Science took a closer look. They gave water that contained the three most common artificial sweeteners (in quantities equivalent to what the FDA allows) to mice. Over time, many of those mice (as well as mice in later, repeated studies) developed glucose intolerance, a precursor to metabolic syndrome, which leads to adult-onset diabetes. The control mice given water, and even those given sugar water, weren't affected in the same way. And the scientists figured out why. 

Stevia leaf produces a natural sweetener.Stevia leaf produces a natural sweetener. (Photo: Anneka/Shutterstock)

Turns out that the artificial sweeteners were killing some good bacteria in the digestive systems of the mice – the very bacteria that help regulate metabolism. Later human trials confirmed in most test subjects (but not all) what had been determined in the mice studies.  

Dr. Eran Elinav, the lead researcher on the study, said, “Our relationship with our own individual mix of gut bacteria is a huge factor in determining how the food we eat affects us. Especially intriguing is the link between use of artificial sweeteners – through the bacteria in our guts – to a tendency to develop the very disorders they were designed to prevent; this calls for reassessment of today’s massive, unsupervised consumption of these substances.”

So what should health-conscious people do when their sweet tooth attacks? 

For starters a focus on healthy, naturally sweet fruits such as dates is a winning formula. But if you want to add a little sweet to your savory, there are several natural sweeteners such as date honey, stevia, maple syrup and molasses that are good sugar substitutes – all without the negative side effects of their less-healthy brethren. 

For a complete guide to types of sugar and sugar substitutes, see this toothsome resource.

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